Reel Reviews | Bike Vessels (Slamdance ’24)

by Charles Kirkland, Jr.

A father and son embark on a four-day, two-hundred-mile bike journey as a celebration in the documentary film, Bike Vessel.

After his third heart attack, Donnie Seals decided to change his entire lifestyle.  He changed his diet but needed to do more.  He decided to start biking.  He went to the store and bought a five-hundred-dollar bicycle from a nearby shop and began to ride.  Five years after his last heart attack, Donnie’s filmmaker son Eric entreats him to celebrate the lifestyle change and achievement by completing a two-hundred-mile, four-day bike ride from St. Louis to Chicago.  Donnie agrees with one condition, that Eric join him on the ride.

Director and cinematographer Eric Seals documents not only the journey that the two make from St. Louis to Chicago but also their training up to the time of the ride.  Bike Vessel also utilizes archival footage/photographs and animations to take viewers to Seals’ previous, unhealthy life and health complications while giving audiences an intimate look inside a Black working-class family in the Midwest.

Yet the power of the film lies not only in the celebration of the success of Donnie but the identification of the commonality of his health condition.  Eric ensures that the audience not only understands how Donnie came to have three heart attacks but also how the historic and systematic cultural subjugation of the African American community lends itself to that unhealthiness.  Smartly, Seals does not leave the viewers with that hopelessness but empowers the community through education and examples of how to overcome it.

By the film’s end, viewers will understand where Seals once was in his health journey, how he fully recovered, and his everyday commitment and struggle of never returning to where he once was.  Also, by the film’s end, the viewers will have the knowledge and compunction to begin their health journey whether there are similarities or not to Donnie Seals Sr.

Embedded in the story of a celebratory and challenging bike ride is the equally challenging attempt to capture and deliver the story cinematically.  Using drones, handlebar and helmet cameras, and a non-interfering camera crew, Eric does a fantastic job of revealing the true complexity of completing a never-before-attempted journey for these two riders.  Seals does not shy away from ensuring that the audience observes all of the obstacles, meteorological, mechanical, relational, and racial that they face on their ride.  At times some of the things that occurred feel like they were scripted but Seals assures us that nothing was staged.

Bike Vessel is an important and challenging documentary that encourages all of us to overcome the shackles of health with which we have been unknowingly burdened.  This is a film and a journey that should be shared.

Grade:  A-